Slow lane swimming in Iceland: Interview with Julia Zarankin

Swimmers are kindred spirits. There's something about the love of water, and the need for the quiet aloneness that swimming requires that makes swimmers kindred spirits. One of these kindreds is writer, birder and self-professed slow lane swimmer, Julia Zarankin.

Her tales of swimming in Iceland are magical.

Be warned, you might book yourself a flight to Iceland after reading this...

LZV: You're a self-professed slow lane swimmer. Tell me about your swimming regime -- breast stroke? Side stroke?

I love this new identity: a slow-lane swimmer. I used to be ashamed & tormented by my slowness in the pool; in high school my gym teacher relegated me to the shallow end with the people who didn’t know how to swim, and I felt seriously deficient. Now I’ve embraced my slow-ness and kind of love it.

I tend to alternate one lap of breast stroke with one lap of front crawl (that way I don’t get as tired) until my internal clock tells me I’ve reached the half-hour mark. Sometimes at the half-hour mark I turn to back-crawl and do that for a bit, but I still haven’t figured out  how not to hit my head and not swim diagonally on my back, so it’s a work-in-progress, and I only experiment when I’m in the pool alone. I used to count laps, but then I stopped. The thing I love most about swimming is that my brain shuts off its to-do list and I enter this bizarre stream-of-consciousness zone where thoughts sort of tumble into one another, and I don’t really try to make sense of them, I simply drift into the role of an observer and watch them battle it out. It’s a strange form of meditation for me – the only area of my life where I happily divorce myself from my thoughts.

Swimming got me through the last stretch of dissertation-writing regimen: I had something to look forward to every day at 4:30 pm. My proudest swimming moment actually happened in graduate school, a few months before defending my dissertation. I went swimming, in the slow lane, of course, and for the first time in my swimming career, I passed someone. Then another, and a third. I kept doing my breast stroke with a ridiculous grin on my face and imagined that I could now, finally, start swimming with the faster folks! I couldn’t wait to tell the world about my new triumph. As I got out of the pool, I took one last look at my beloved slow lane to immortalize this moment of super-swimmer-ness and realized, to my total horror, that the people who I had passed weren’t swimming at all! They were water-jogging. Ah well…it’ll be the slow lane for me forever, I think, and that’s just fineJ

You asked about strokes: I think I experimented with side stroke a few times but I couldn’t get into a rhythm. For some reason side stroke forever feels like a dad-stroke to me, because it’s the only stroke my father knows. I’ve only seen him swim a few times in my life (he hates the water), and there he was, swimming side-stroke in his Tilley hat and sunglasses. So when I’m just doing side-stroke laps in a pool sans Tilley hat, I feel like something is missing. 

LZV: You've been swimming in 11 (!!) different slow lanes in Iceland. That's amazing! Highlights?
Iceland is a swimmer’s paradise. To be perfectly honest, I spent most of my time in Icelandic pools just lounging around in their hot tubs. Almost every swimming facility we visited offered a great pool with lane swimming, another pool with nifty water slides, and between 2 and 5 fabulous hot pots of varying temperatures – I loved the 38-degree pool best. Pools are social hubs in Iceland. Everyone from babies to senior citizens hang out in the pools. My husband and I once met Iceland’s oldest marathoner in a 40-degree hot pot. He was 85 years old and training for the Reykjavik marathon. He told us that he’s held the national record in his age-group since he turned 65! Almost all the pools are outdoor and they’re used year-round.

We swam in Reykjavik’s oldest art-deco pool called Sundhollin (it had two hot pots on the roof!), built in the 1930s, which I loved. We also swam in a swankier, more modern pool complex on the edge of the city. One of my favourite pools is in Iceland’s northern capital, Akureyri. Amazing waterslides, and about 8 different hot pots. I did some serious slow-lane breast stroke in between my stints in the hot pots. Great sunset viewing, too. (All pools in Iceland are open until at least 10pm).

By far the most popular thermal bath in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, and it’s certainly great, but a bit overpriced and over crowded. If you’re looking for a spa-type steam-bath experience, I’d go to Myvatn Nature Baths, about an hour outside of Akureyri. We spent about three hours soaking in the baths after hiking around a volcanic crater and exploring lava fields. No slow-lane swimming, just soaking, but it was fabulous.

The incredible Hofsos Swimming pool

The one pool I regret not visiting is the Hofsos Swimming pool, designed by Basalt Arkitektar. It’s an “infinity pool” and apparently as you’re swimming your (slow-lane) laps (in year-round geothermally heated luke-warm water), you can see the ocean just beyond the horizon and it feels like you’re swimming out into the open, toward the distant islands. Apparently there’s also a town with a world renown herring museum not far from there… Ah, next time.

No town in Iceland is too small to have a pool, by the way.

LZV: How did you find these pools?
I did a bunch of online research and then talked to people in swimming pools and asked them where they loved to swim! Icelanders love to nerd-out about swimming pools.

LZV: Does the swimming culture or slow lane etiquette differ between Canada and Iceland?
Pools in Iceland are pristine, and everybody showers sans bathing suit before entering the pool. If an Icelander sees you trying to enter a pool before having had a serious shower they will glare at you and point you in the direction of the shower and sometimes even watch and make sure that you’ve showered thoroughly! As I mentioned earlier, pools in Iceland are also social hubs – it’s where people of ALL ages go to relax and hang out! I once saw a young Icelander reading Dostoevsky’s DEMONS in a 40-degree hot pot.

LZV: Do you ever plan your trips around swimming?
Yes! My obsession with visiting Budapest was entirely swimming-related. I think Budapest has the best hot-springs in the world! We swam in Szechenyi Baths – this majestic thermal bath complex built in 1911. I think there were about 15 different hot tubs and a huge outdoor pool where Hungarian men hung out all day long and played chess.

Editor's Note: CHECK THEM OUT! They are beyond incredible! *books flight immediately*

I also made sure we spent some serious time in the Takhini Hot Springs when we visited Whitehorse.
My husband and I are turning into hot springs junkies, so lately we’ve been planning travel (partly) around pool/water-related activities. I recently heard great things about hot springs in New Mexico…!

LZV: Are there other destination slow lanes you have loved, or have your eye on?
I’d love to visit Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic (though I suspect it would involve more lounging than actual slow-lane swimming), and we’re hoping to swim in the Dead Sea in Israel at some point this year, with a side trip to the hot springs in Hamat Gader – yep, I’m already doing my research!

LZV: When did you realize that in addition to being a writer and bird watcher and pianist (all very meditative, solitary things) that you are also a swimmer?
I can’t say I really think of myself as a swimmer. It’s mainly just something I do regularly (approx. 3x/week) to clear my head. And the bonus is that swimming instantaneously puts me in a good mood. What’s not to love about it?
  • Lindsay
  • Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Hottest Swimsuit Styles of 2016

One of the best parts of collaborating on a swim blog with fellow awesome swimmers, is that everyday you can send each other photos of fabulous secret lakes, or tweet at each other dreamy pools, or in this case send a text to me with the link to InStyle's Top 21 Hottest Swimsuits of 2016, and a message saying "For your bears!" Drawing challenge accepted!

Behold, InStyle's Hottest Swimsuit Styles of Resort 2016 Swim Week, worn by illustrated pen and ink bears! Which is your favourite look?

  • Rhya
  • Monday, January 25, 2016

Party in the Deep End

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to write for my first swim post of 2016, and figured it might be good to start with a first swim, and then see where I go from there.

So my first swim was a week ago, at my usual local joint, the JJP Community Centre here in Toronto. I was guided to the pool by a trail of discarded Christmas trees and blinking lights and wondered what the weather was like in Malibu, as my feet crunched the ice crusted sidewalks below.

2016 has not been the renewal of spirit that I’ve grown accustomed to when a New Year begins, in fact, it has felt quite heavy for many reasons, personal and professional. So as I trudged off to this first swim, everything felt so cumbersome… and the fact that I was listening to Alice Boman’s haunting song, Waiting was also probably not helping. 

Now, it should be mentioned I am a lover of big feelings. I love a good old ’emo’ run, where you open your arms wide, and charge the horizon with tears streaming down your face. I mean yes, crying makes it hard to breath, and yes, you probably look crazy to all on lookers, but who cares you are usually running away from them. But swimming has always been a pastime that has quieted my emotions, or maybe clarified them. Under water everything is silent and muffled, you are weightless and you can’t breath. It’s a very different experience from the gravity pounding, air infused experience of running, or really any activity done out of water. So here I was walking towards my silent place, with a head and heart full of really loud big feelings, and I was not sure the pool was the right place for them.

Since starting this blog with my fellow swimmers, my relationship to swimming has become much more mindful. It’s fascinating what is revealed when you stop and ask yourself to really examine something you love. I’ve reflected on my stroke, on why I swim or why I love pools more than all other bodies of water (well maybe not more than the ocean… the ocean always wins). I’ve also reflected on what the differences are with how I swim now vs. how I swam as a child. And one of the biggest changes I’ve discovered is the routine vs. the freedom, or the ritual vs. the random. Don’t get me wrong, I love my swim rituals. I do. But when I was a child jumping in the pool was an unwritten journey, handstands in the shallow end would flow without reason into mermaid kicks towards the deep end, along with challenges to see how long you could hold your breath under water, or back floats that seemed to stretch out for days. And always, always, there would be a party on the deep end of the pool floor, you know, where you sink down, hold hands with your friends and fake a tea party, or try and decipher what each other is saying, or just get lost in that deep deep abyss.

I’ve realized I miss that. I miss the freedom, the fun and the figure eights of bodies through uncharted waters.

So now to dive back into the first swim of 2016, where all these thoughts were rattling around my brain as I headed into the pool area, with goggles and cap on, and coming to the realization that I had to shake up this swim. It was time... no, it was overtime for a Party In the Deep End.

Lucky for me, the JJP pool is sort of shaped like a boot, and there is this deep toe section in the south west corner of the pool, where you can flutter off to and tread water or take a breather. I’ve never really used that area because I’m usually so into my length routine. But this Sunday afternoon, I decide to break out of my pattern and go a little ‘emo’ in the pool!

I found my courage around 30 minutes into my swim, which is ridiculous I know, but there is something about a length swim that makes you feel like you have to follow all those out-and-back rules. Anyways, I finally cut off to the side and I had the whole “toe” section to myself. I caught my breath, and then I just went for it.

I dove down, I flipped, I got water up my nose, I touched the bottom, I dolphined, and then I let go of all my air and sank to the bottom, and just stayed there—skin against tile, eyes tucked under plastic armor—starring out at the blue ceiling, and thinking why did it take me so long to do this!

I don’t care if I looked ridiculous. It was amazing. It was what I needed, a good old fashioned Deep End Party. I encourage everyone to try it. Let go, sink down and then come back to the surface, letting your secrets stay safe and soggy, floating at the bottom somewhere on the west side of the pool.

And that was my first swim and this is my first post of 2016.

*Pool note, epic Deep End Party in Season 2, Episode 10 of Transparent, EPIC!
  • Rhya
  • Saturday, January 16, 2016

Tips for the fast lane

January swimming feels a bit like this scene from JiHyeon Lee's brilliant book, Pool.

It is the New Year, which means the pools are full of New Years Resolutioners. Fear not, intrepid swimming stalwarts, they’ll be one of us by mid-February, or they’ll be sick of the chlorine smell and hang up their suits till next January.

But until then, some tips for the swimming newbies…

You might consider a lane other than the fast line if:
- you are workshopping a new stroke, especially one that is a hybrid of whip kick and butterfly arms
- your go-to stroke is sidestroke
- you don't put your face in the water when doing front crawl
- you can’t make it the length of the pool without hanging onto the rope
- you're getting lapped. Even if you’ve got epic body builder biceps, if people have to swim around you, you’re in the wrong lane.

Happy swimming!
  • Lindsay
  • Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Dolphin Man

Today I met a Dolphin Man.

I went to the pool at lunch time for lane swim. I was a bit out of sorts... I worked late last night so I was tired, David Bowie died so I was bummed, and it was one of those days where you realize with *surprise* (how do these things sneak up so?) that you probably should have scheduled in a bikini wax – so I was annoyed, but grateful for the low cut legs on my Sportsy Suit.

When I first got in the pool, I noticed this guy wearing an unusual navy blue swim suit that looked like my summer yoga pants. And a fun swim cap. It was light blue and it had a pattern of either tropical flowers on it, or Snoopy. Can't remember. But I was jealous that his swim cap was fun.

He was polite and let me in the queue in front of him so I could get started.

Somewhere along the way I ended up behind him again. And by then, because of the grump factor noted above and the old lady who kept butting in the line, I almost missed what was going on.

Dolphin Man would disappear under the water – like a submarine submerging – push off against the wall, slowly, and trace the bottom of the pool with this beautiful little kick, arms back by his sides.

He swam the entire length of the pool, and never came up for air until he reached the other end.

I watched him do this a few times, mesmerized, until finally I broke standard no-talking-at-the-pool protocol and blurted out, "Did you just do that whole thing on one breath??"

And he answered, graciously, as Dolphins do.

I finished the rest of my swim behind him, studying his unhurried, graceful pattern through the water. It made me slow down too... I was more careful about my stroke, my breath, more appreciative of the colour underwater. Of the quiet.

I was really affected by the whole thing, and maybe here's why. This whole last year, I have been reflecting a lot on dreams and goals and getting yourself to where you want to be. I have been observing and hanging out with people who I think are good at this kind of thing, hoping to uncover some of the secrets of their success.

And I've realized that all these people I know, who I admire, who live their dreams and seem to accomplish so much – well, it takes a while. It's not overnight, and they work at it constantly. 

Maybe this is why Dolphin Man's response about his one, big deep breath struck me today, the way it did.

"It took me two years of practicing before I could do it."

And then finally, Dolphin Man cut a diagonal line under the other lanes, under all the other swimmers, and was gone.

  • Laura
  • Monday, January 11, 2016

January swimming in small-town Saskatchewan

Most people don't go to small-town Saskatchewan to swim, especially in January, and though swimming wasn't my primary intention when I went in 2012, it's what I did a lot of.

I went with some wonderful artists to work as a writer on a project about home. During the week I taught at a high school in Yorkton and worked on a script and on the weekends, I walked along railway tracks and tromped through snow-covered fields in my huge winter boots and poked around abandoned farm houses that housed birds and coyotes and all sorts of things that terrified me. 

The days and the evenings were full, with teaching and rehearsing and writing and editing. There was so much writing, I knew I needed to swim.

I found a pool that was about 2km from the school -- The Gallagher Centre. It was huge. There were two pools, one with waterslides, another for length swim, a lazy river, a sauna, steam room. It was a veritable swimming utopia. It wasn't cheap, and it wasn't close, but it was heaven.

I swam in the fast lane with a bunch of retired farmers who would stand around the shallow end and talk about the weather, which is usually boring, except when it's 40 below, -50 with the windchill, and you've never felt cold like that in all of your life, it's actually quite fascinating. They were most impressed that the city girl from Toronto knew how to dress for the cold. 

I'd get a ride up when our morning classes were done and then I'd walk back after my swim, listening to the Deep Dark Woods and marvelling at the sun dogs. There were afternoons when I'd get stuck on the wrong side of the train tracks, waiting for a huge never-ending train go by. (Does it get any more Prairie than that?)

I learned pretty quickly that even with a balaclava and a hat and a hood, I had to dry my hair completely before heading out into the cold. I also realized that mascara would freeze in tiny beads on the tips of my eyelashes and then as soon as I got back to school, it would drip down my cheeks. The students thought it was hilarious -- the city girl who thought she could wear mascara walking around in a Saskatchewan winter.

Those swims kept me grounded in a whirlwind month of creation (though I still wish I had gone down the twirly slide!)

  • Lindsay
  • Friday, January 8, 2016

The most unepic, unhistoric and uninspiring swim of 2015

My plan was to have the most epic, historic and mind-blowing swims to close out 2015 and welcome 2016. My wee family rented a tiny railcar cottage that was next door to an indoor pool. A HUGE indoor pool. (And it was in Utopia, Ontario...clearly a sign of brilliance ahead, right?!)

I had grand visions of swimming every time the baby went down for a nap and sneaking out of the railcar after a midnight toast and going for a first-hour-of-2016 dip. I dreamt of doing laps on laps on laps, then rushing into the railcar for hot chocolate and whisky by the fire.

Sadly, my grand visions weren’t quite realized. 

The pool was a lot smaller than the pictures indicated (why are pools always SO much bigger in photos?!?) — just five strokes from one side to the other. Not ideal, but not a deal breaker.

The water was eerily murky (it was a natural pool, cleaned by “microhero microbes” that were squirted into the water in a molasses-y concoction), but I’ve been swimming in E. Coli ladened Lake Ontario, so that couldn’t stop me…

The deal breaker was that the pool was cold. So, so very cold. Granted, I am a wimp when it comes to getting into cold water, but usually once I get swimming, I can’t stop. But this water was so cold, I couldn’t.

Ten lengths, maybe. Fifty strokes was all I could manage.

And so, even though I remembered my underpants (which really needs to be my New Year’s resolution), my final swim of 2015 wasn’t the epic, historic, mind-blowing swim I hoped it would be and my first swim of 2016 took place at the local community pool -- my standard, 30-minutes front crawl, 10-minutes flutter kick, 15-minutes choose-your-own-adventure in the fast lane.

But I have not given up on finding my swimming utopia -- 2016 is going to be full of swimming adventures, I just know it.
  • Lindsay
  • Monday, January 4, 2016

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